Roman Shepeliev Worried About Family, Friends Facing ‘Horrible’ Russian Attack

A male student sits at a desk in an empty auditorium  Image by Ed Brennen
Sophomore electrical engineering major Roman Shepeliev, who moved from Ukraine to the U.S. in 2016, doesn't know what will happen to his family and friends back home now that Russia has invaded.

By Ed Brennen

Of all the concerned students who packed O’Leary Library’s auditorium for the Political Science Department’s recent discussion on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, none were affected by the conflict quite like sophomore electrical engineering major Roman Shepeliev.

Born in Crimea and raised in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, Shepeliev immigrated to the United States with his mom, Olga, as a teenager in 2016, settling in Andover, Massachusetts.

His father, Roman, and grandparents still live in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that was annexed by Russia in 2014, and most of his childhood friends are trapped in Ukraine, which has been under heavy assault from Vladimir Putin’s military forces since Feb. 24.

“It’s horrible. When the invasion started, I couldn’t believe it. Nobody knew what was happening,” says Shepeliev, who has remained in contact with several friends in Kyiv, receiving text messages and photos from their makeshift bomb shelters.

“On one of the first nights, I was talking to my friend, and right before he went to sleep, he was like, ‘I’m not sure if this is going to be my last message to you, but if it is, I love you. I’ll text you in the morning if I wake up,’” Shepeliev says. “When I saw that, it made me tear up. It was after midnight, and I couldn’t fall asleep.”

Like millions of Ukrainians, Shepeliev’s family roots are intertwined with Russia, making the border war even more painful. His mom was born in Russia, and he has family in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi.
A young boy in a red coat and a man walk past a pile of tires and a broken down truck in a public square Image by courtesy
A young Roman Shepeliev walks with a family friend past a damaged truck during the Maidan protest movement in Kyiv in 2014, which led to the removal of Ukraine's former pro-Russian president. Shepeliev says the family friend is still in Kyiv.

“Nobody wants this,” says Shepeliev, who has found it “heartwarming” to see anti-war protestors showing their support for Ukraine all over the world — including in Russia.

Although Shepeliev feels helpless from thousands of miles away — “There’s nothing I can do except pray,” he says — he hopes to raise awareness of the crisis on campus. 

In her statement of support for Ukraine, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney praised the resolve of the Ukrainian people — and also the courage of Russians who are speaking out against the attack.

“Our thoughts are with those living through this difficult time, as well as the members of the university community who have friends and loved ones in harm’s way,” she said.

Shepeliev encourages people to “donate whatever you feel you can, if you can.” One local nonprofit that was started in 2015 by a Shepeliev family friend, Sunflower of Peace, raised over $500,000 for Ukrainian relief efforts during the first week of the invasion.

While his family is not enduring violence in Crimea at the moment, Shepeliev says his father has sent him Instagram videos showing Russian tanks and soldiers in the streets.

Also, friends in Kyiv have shared conversations they’ve had with friends serving in the Russian army.

“They didn’t even know what was happening,” he says. “Kids my age, even younger, were clueless. They were just sent there and forced to follow commands.”
A student stands with his arms folded in front of a project screen that says "Ukraine Invasion" Image by Ed Brennen
Roman Shepeliev attended a recent discussion on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, hosted by the Political Science Department at O'Leary Library.

As painful as it is for Shepeliev to see Russian forces killing civilians and destroying his homeland, he can’t turn away from coverage on TV and social media.

“I have to stay on top of the news to find out what’s happening to them,” he says.  

He’s not surprised to see Ukrainian citizens putting up such an intense fight.

“There’s a line in our national anthem about fighting for our freedom,” he says. “People in Ukraine always were fighters. It’s in our blood, I would say.”

Shepeliev says it was difficult to live through Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — an event that spurred his mom to move with him to the United States. 

“I am very thankful to her for taking such a big risk and moving to a completely different environment,” he says. “She started everything from scratch so I can enjoy the benefits of American freedom.”